How to Buy a Hiking Backpack

Being lifelong travelers, we all love our lightweight, multipurpose gear that can withstand the rigors of the road. Gear should be dependable, multifunctional, durable and perform beyond expectations. Nothing could be truer when it comes to buying a good hiking backpack, especially considering it’s going to be your home away from home. Traveling, especially long-term will literally test the limits of your bag and your body, and as such, this decision should never be made impulsively. Buying your backpack should not be a rushed decision and factors like trip length, capacity, material, functionally and comfort should always be considered. When I first got serious about investing in a good pack, I was at REI for a good 3 hours -I think they started to suspect I was applying for a job.

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If my three hours were any indication, buying a good backpack is not an easy task. With hundreds of backpack manufacturers and styles, it can understandably be overwhelming. Whatever you do, don’t go cheap. You’ll be doing yourself a disservice and end up buying a new one anyway. A good backpack is an investment. You needn’t spend $500 on a backpack, but be wary of cheap, no-frills, run of the mill $70 brands, as you’ll regret the design flaws and absence of extras. Spend a little more for a good backpack from a trusted brand, and it will be your companion for many trips to come. The Osprey pack I eventually settled on has traveled with me from the U.S to the Middle East for 10 awesome years and I know it has another good 10 years to go.

Travel Backpack or Hiking Backpack

Before you begin shopping for the right pack, it’s important to know the difference between travel backpacks and hiking backpacks. A travel backpack is a backpack-suitcase hybrid with a zippered side panel similar to a suitcase. Hiking backpacks are the more commonly seen cylindrical top loading packs with straps, clips and a top lid. Some people have an opinion that hiking backpacks are only suited for the backcountry and has no place for the backpacker, I disagree. What works for you ultimately comes down to personal preference and style of travel. Travel backpacks are great for easy, organized access to gear and transporting from hostel to hostel. They also function well for short walks or even as a daypack.

On the other hand, if you possibly have camping or long treks in your travel plans, you may want to consider a hiking backpack. Hiking backpacks are designed for comfort, proper weight distribution, and toughness. Unlike a travel backpack, hiking backpacks will have enhancements like full-sized hip belts, shoulder and back suspension systems along with plenty of load-bearing straps to mitigate discomfort. Granted the top down packing isn’t as convenient to access your gear, but that’s part in parcel to proper weight distribution. A good compromise would be to get a hiking backpack with side load access.

I am generalizing a bit as they do have travel backpacks that are in the upper capacity range with more advanced suspension systems, but if you’re going to get a 70L travel backpack, you may as well go with a hiking backpack. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did for that unexpected 20-mile trek to the next town.

Personal Backpacking Style

Next, determine the style of travel you normally like to do. Unless you’re willing to buy a different backpack for each trip, figuring out your travel style will save you a lot of money in the long run and give you a piece of foundation gear that’s ready for any trip. For instance, if you generally go on week-long trips you needn’t get a high capacity bag and could probably get away with a 35 liter to 50 liters (L) pack, whereas living long-term on the road may require 65L or greater.

Size is pretty subjective though and shouldn’t be the only determining factor. Some people are able to pack very bare-bones, where others require a bit more. Consider these factors:

How long is your trip:

Depending on the length of your trip the capacity and overall weight of your pack will vary. Short trips require less capacity, and long trips typically require more. But be aware that the bigger the pack the heavier it will become. 50lbs may not seem a lot at first, but 2 months in and it will feel like a ton of bricks.

What Type of Activities will you do:

I personally feel that one bag can rule them all since I generally use my pack for everything. However, this may not be the case for everyone. Knowing what type of activity you’ll be doing will help you zero in on that perfect backpack. If you’re not planning on carrying it around much, consider a travel backpack or even a wheeled backpack, whereas if you foresee yourself doing long treks then a hiking backpack may be more suitable. I like to be prepared for any type of spontaneous activity, so I lean more towards hiking backpacks. Also, hiking backpacks are generally made a bit tougher, so keep in mind that the more challenging the activity, the greater the stress on the bag.

Lightweight or the kitchen sink:

Although I mentioned earlier that size is not the main determining factor, it’s still important to consider capacity based on what you plan to bring. If ultra light is your goal, avoid high capacity backpacks as you’ll invariably bring too much or if you do manage to pack light your backpack won’t distribute the weight properly. Conversely, if your backpack is too small, you won’t be able to fit everything in. Have an idea of the gear you’re bringing and pick the capacity of your bag accordingly. Don’t hesitate to bring your items to the store to see how it fits in the packs. A reputable retailer, like REI, won’t have a problem with this.

What To Look For In A Hiking Backpack

Backpacks vary in functionality as much as they do in appearance, with the more expensive models having the most bells and whistles. As with everything, your decision here is closely related to what type of traveling you like to do.

Water-Resistant

Your pack is probably not going to be completely waterproof. Meaning, if submerged, or in a torrential downpour, your clothing and equipment will still get wet. Although most backpacks now come with a rain cover, you still want it to be made of a tough, rip-proof, and lightweight silicone coated nylon or Cordura type material that allows rain or water to bead off and not soak through.

Detachable Daypack

this option is really a personal preference, and not really a deal-breaker, as many travelers bring an additional pack for day trips. But for those focused on traveling light, carrying two bags can be cumbersome. I personally like the option of a detachable daypack as I have it only when I need it. On my Osprey, the top lid doubles as a daypack. Not as comfortable as a dedicated daypack, but it serves its purpose.

Heavy-duty Lockable Zippers

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. No matter how good the material of the backpack, if the attachment points, like zippers, are weak the whole bag is worthless. Make sure the zippers are tough and lockable where applicable.

Pockets and Compartments

The more compartments are the better. Good backpacks usually have a number of compartments to help store and separate your gear so you won’t have to sift through layers of clothes just to find your chapstick. For instance, maps can go in the top flap, while your flip-flops are stored conveniently in the side pocket. However, you decide to pack, separate pockets allow easy and quick access to your gear. Most backpacks will also have strategically placed pockets, like on the hip belt, so you can get to your gear without having to drop your pack.

Lightweight Internal Frame

Backpacks generally come with an internal frame, external frame, or no frame at all. I strongly recommend a lightweight internal frame made from strong carbon fiber rods. This provides more load support and just looks better. External frames are bulky, conspicuous, and use dated technology and frameless backpacks have awful load support at higher weights. Trust me, without proper weight distribution, you’re shoulders are going to feel every single one of those pounds.

Side Load Access

I’m seeing less and less of this function on the newer backpacks, but if you do happen to find one with side access you’re golden. You’ll be able to access items from the main compartment of the bag without digging in from the top. Your life will just be that much simpler.

Suspension System with Padded Shoulders and Load Bearing Straps

Don’t even consider buying a backpack unless it has either an adjustable or fixed suspension system, along with a bunch of load-bearing straps. The suspension system is the part that usually rests against your back and where the padded shoulders connect. The fixed system means that it fits to one torso size, whereas the adjustable system can be calibrated. The whole system is meant to help stabilize the load and transfer weight to your hips. The load-bearing straps, like the sternum strap, will also help move the weight around minimizing pain and discomfort.

Ventilation

To minimize the discomfort from an annoying sweaty back, get a backpack with ventilation. Most internal-frame packs will have some sort of ventilation system or design feature that promotes airflow, creating a permanent breathable layer between yourself and the backpack. Although not essential for load support, it certainly increases your comfort level.

Padded Full-size Hip belt

This is probably the most important feature of any backpack since your hips will be carrying 80% of the weight of your backpack. The padding in the belt will help you avoid fatigue, discomfort, and of course load distribution. Make sure you get one that’s full-size, where the padding comes around your hip bone to the front and isn’t just a thin strap with a clip.

Multiple Straps and Tool Attachment Points

This feature is a personal preference and doesn’t really impact comfort and load distribution but I do feel it’s just as important. I like the idea of having excess straps, clips, and tool attachment points. You’re able to perform on-the-fly spot fixes for a variety of unexpected circumstances, making your backpack function more than just as a bag. You’re able to tie, hook, and rig a whole mess of things while on the road without having to carry additional gear. Some backpacks have begun to include “daisy chains” (typically found on climbing packs) which is a series of tool attachment loops.

Internal Hydration Reservoir

An internal compartment that holds your favorite hydration bladder (i.e. Camelbak, Platypus) so you have hands free access to H2O. Openings on the backpack will allow you access to the sip tube making it a very practical feature during your long treks. You won’t have to dig into your pack or stop your momentum looking for your water bottle.

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